Christians often speak of “showing others Jesus’ love,” or perhaps “demonstrating the love of Jesus to others.” We may speak this way with reference to the poor, those in need or others whom we are serving. When we take the initiative to do good to those in need, we are extending Jesus’ love to them.
It may be surprising to learn that these common expressions are not biblical ways of talking. And while it may not appear too sinister, such talk actually reveals a corrupted imagination with reference to Christian action and the love of Jesus. Talking about “showing others Jesus’ love” perverts the character of Christian service and reveals a misunderstanding of God’s love and presence.
It seems to me that this sort of confusion partly is responsible for the tragically anemic response of American Christian churches to the current international refugee crisis.
I say this because to talk this way is to imagine that we are the possessors of Jesus’ love. We have it and it is up to us to dispense it to others. This puts us in positions of power and control. We are patrons and others are needy clients. We occupy a superior position to others and it leaves the choice with us as to whether the situation merits “demonstrating God’s love.”
Jesus turns this assumption on its head when he speaks of service.
Sitting down, Jesus called the twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:35-37).
When disciples serve by providing hospitality and care for those with no social status (in this instance, children), they are not showing Jesus’ love. The biblical logic works in reverse. When disciples provide hospitality to people who don’t matter in the eyes of the world, they provide hospitality for Jesus. They encounter and serve Jesus and God when they serve others.
The same logic runs through Matthew 25:31-46, in which Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. Those who served the socially marginalized and needy were actually serving Jesus. Those who did not serve these people withheld service from Jesus and were headed for judgment.
John 12:26 makes the same point. Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.”
Where do we find Jesus so that we may know where his servants should be? Throughout the Gospels Jesus is with all the wrong kinds of people according to those who were very assured of their insider status with the God of Israel. The Pharisees imagined that they possessed God’s love and they withheld it from the unclean, from traitorous tax-collectors and other sinners. They were enraged when they found Jesus touching unclean people and providing hospitality for tax-collectors and sinners.
We find him entering a house in Tyre and healing a Syrian-Phoenician woman’s demon-possessed daughter. Mark exploits this episode to reveal and subvert the ethnic prejudices of his audiences in Mark 7.
Welcoming and providing hospitality and care for the needy, and in this case refugees, is not an option for the church. We should imagine this situation from both a hopeful perspective and a severe one. Hope, because serving others contains the promise that we will experience more of the life-giving presence of Jesus. Severity, because if we are presumptuous of our possession of God’s love and complacent regarding service to others, we risk having no connection to Jesus.
Rather than speaking of showing God’s love to others, we should talk about opportunities to encounter God’s presence and enjoy Jesus’ love. This happens when we put ourselves into uncomfortable situations and serve the needy. When we do this, we are the ones being blessed because in those acts of service we encounter Jesus and his life-sustaining presence.